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Fifty years later


The morning sun softened the horizon from rust-red to amber.

Mersey’s crew had mostly trickled home to Red Glory, giving us space. This moment was like all our moments, the last five decades. A farewell.

Made my throat close up. Every time we saw her, she was older and it got harder. But this . . .

Today hurt worst. Knowing how close we were to the end. That nothing’d ever let us go back and have all the time we wanted. All the mornings we’d almost let ourselves hope for.

I watched the gangplank lower behind her, heart beating furiously in my chest. We’d been so young when we agreed to this. Promised our sullied selves to each other, like the heartbreak could ever heal while the sea tore between us. Over and over. Every day, for fifty years. Being away from Mersey had aged me like the centuries couldn’t.

But there I stood, looking like I had the day we met.

Mersey’s eyes had darkened, her face lined and drooping. She stared back at me, lips pressed in a pale grimace, knowing as well as I did what was coming.

We had to savour this pain. Knew it might be the last thing we ever shared.

Mersey turned her gaze to Sebastien, snatching my heart along with it. Her grandmother’s old cane tapped the planks. ‘Forgot to mention,’ she told him.‘Saw masts a few leagues off. Only a coupl’a days out if these winds keep up. Left them alone so as not to keep you waiting, but you might wanna expect company.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. Wanting her to look at me again. Wanting her to look at me forever. She granted me a fleeting glance. Said nothing. Sebastien nodded. He’d changed more than Aron or I ever would.

More than we’d expected him to. No more hood. No more brooding for weeks on end. Hours, aye – days, even – but he was better than before. I wondered if Mersey could see it.

She tapped her cane again, the vibration of the wood setting my blood racing through my boots. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming.

I wasn’t ready for the end.

‘Prove me wrong,’ Mersey told the King, quiet. Her gaze flickered back to Sebastien’s and I could read the challenge in her faded blue eyes. The hope, the anger.

Sebastien dipped his head, an apology. That he hadn’t been able to save us from this. All these years sat heavy on his shoulders, I knew. Almost as much as they did mine. Weighed more the older Mersey got, the more the tides carried us apart.

‘I’m trying,’ he murmured.

The Heartless King backed away, leaving the two of us alone.

I looked at Mersey. Looked at the woman who’d grown around the lass I loved. The woman who felt as much like home to me as the cities I’d seen sink three centuries ago.

I wondered if she knew how much she looked like her gran. If her memory was as sharp as her wit. If she hated looking in mirrors as much as the rest of us now.

Mersey limped forward, reached for me, and I was there. Stepping close enough to touch her, though I didn’t. The salt of her scent was still tinged with pine, like the forest’d never quite let her go. She leant into me, hunched over her ivory cane. Her cheek grazed mine and I pulled back, held her gaze. Tried to tell her all

the things I ached to say aloud.

Don’t leave. I’d said that before. On the precipice of a dozen heartbreaks that felt too much like this one.

Mersey’s withered hand touched my cheek, making my eyes sting. ‘You look good, Goldie,’ she said.

I huffed a laugh. Liar. ‘I miss ye,’ I said instead.

She nodded, swallowing. It looked like it hurt, like her throat was sand all the way down. ‘I love you,’ she said back. ‘As much as always. More.’

I glanced away, as if I could shake the feeling off. It never worked with her; the tightness in my chest stayed.

‘Hurts, the way ye love me,’ I told Mersey. ‘So strong I can feel it even when ye’re gone.’

She watched me with hooded eyes. ‘Like a phantom limb?’ ‘Aye.’

Mersey stepped closer, reaching for my hand.‘I swore I wouldn’t die before you,’ she rasped. ‘And I haven’t, have I? And even when I am gone, I won’t be. All you’ll have to do is look out at the water to see the way I’ve painted my name on the world. You gave me this life, Goldie. This freedom. I love you for that. For everything, every day. You made me immortal.’

‘That ain’t what immortal means,’ I said, voice close to a whimper.

Whether I was flesh or stone, she’d still die. Still leave me.

Mersey shook her head, a quirk to her lips when she spoke. Her voice had deepened, whittled by her decades at sea into the drawl of a pirate. ‘Even you won’t outlive the stories I’ve inspired,’ she said. ‘They’ll be singing of me a thousand years from now. I’ve filled libraries with the blood I’ve spilled. Oceans of it I’ll leave behind for you. Ain’t that immortal?’

The thought made her happy, I could tell. So I said nothing. It was enough, just her smile.

Mersey’s thumb stroked my cheek. ‘Don’t be scared of losing me,’ she said quietly. ‘I made myself a home in that heart of yours, and I don’t ever plan on leaving.’

I nodded, hair falling across my face. I knew if I spoke I’d cry and there was enough salt in this damned world already. I pressed my cheek into her hand, taking deep breaths until the blinding heat behind my eyes receded.

‘I know, lass,’ I said, when I thought my voice wouldn’t betray me. ‘So many parts o’ me have been in love with ye fer so long there ain’t much left that ain’t yers. Hardly got room to be angry any more.’

Mersey pulled back, eyes holding on to mine. ‘But you’re always angry.’ She smiled, and it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.

‘I’m tired, Mer,’ I told her with a sigh. ‘I’m so old and I’m tired o’ not knowin’ if or when I’ll see ye again.’

Her lips twitched. ‘I’m old too, Goldie.’ ‘Old enough to come home?’

My plea sat heavy between us for a long time. Mersey dipped her head, face wrinkling. Shadows seeped into the lines of her weathered skin. ‘Almost,’ she said.

Almost. The whole world wasn’t enough for this woman. She’d turn it all red before she went, and I loved her for it. Enough to let it break me, her glory-hungry heart.

She leaned in again, lips brushing my cheekbones, forehead.Then came the thunk of her leg as she stepped back. Leaving, like she always did.

I had nothing left – no part of me I hadn’t already torn out to offer her. So I watched her go. Watched my heart raise anchor and pull away. Watched Mersey lift a hand in farewell, hair tugged wild around her as Red Glory’s sails caught the wind.

I stayed there a long time, feeling the salt against my cheeks. I wanted to absorb it. Taste like it, so that every time she thought of the sea – which would be every day, forever – she’d think of kissing me.

  • A Sea of Wolves - Sarah Street

    Prepare to be swept away by heartbreaking romance and revenge-at-sea in this sapphic enemies-to-lovers romantasy inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. From the author of A Curse of Salt, this fairytale retelling is perfect for fans of Lies We Sing to the Sea and Marissa Meyer.

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